You Call It Corn…
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Back during my formative years, there was a commercial on TV all the time (I think for Mazola margarine) with the catch phrase, “You call it corn. We call it Maize.”
It was one of those commercials you couldn’t get away from and for some reason the slogan just seemed funny—not quite in the same league as “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV,” but along those lines. And my friend Sue, who is the master of the pithy phrase, used it as a sort of code to represent any large cultural difference. (The best example I can think of was when I was making approximately $20,000 a year and looking for a new job, and my father sent me a book called Rites of Passage at $100,000+ with advice on job-changing for corporate CEOs. He knew I didn’t make anywhere near $100,000, but he thought the book had good information, so he sent it. And it did have good information, and it was useful, but some of it was just funny because it was so not what I was dealing with. I was talking to Sue about it and she said, “You call it corn, we call it maize.” I said, “Exactly.”)
So I was reminded of this cultural chasm (involving corn, no less) when I noticed the multiple comments regarding the cornmeal mush discusison, with several commenters suggesting that cornmeal mush and grits are the same thing. And one person who was clearly offended by my sense of humor (for the record, the thing about people in Michigan was just a joke, I wasn’t trying to dis anyone in Michigan, I swear), accusing me of being stupid for living in the South and not knowing what grits are.
I do in fact know what grits are, and I also know what cornmeal is, and grits and cornmeal are not the same thing.
So herewith is my public service announcement concerning ground corn-based products.
Cornmeal is ground corn.
Grits is dried and ground hominy. (Hominy is soaked and dehulled corn.) Sometimes these are called “white grits” or “hominy grits.”
There is a ground corn product sold in the bulk aisle of my local Whole Foods called “yellow grits.” I spoke about this with a friendly Whole Foods staff person yesterday, and he told me that those yellow grits are a coarser version of cornmeal. This apparently is what many people think of when they talk about grits.
(And, after getting a comment stating that grits are polenta, I need to clarify here that polenta is made from ground cornmeal, and is not grits by a different name — though I think that polenta could safely be called cornmeal mush by a different name. Polenta is cornmeal, grits are not cornmeal, therefore grits are not polenta. Nor is funchi, which is also ground cornmeal, but gets a special mention for having its own song, which I will definitely be singing the next time I make cornmeal mush.)
In my experience living in the South, when people say “grits” they mean hominy grits. However different regions have different names, and different people may mean different things when they use the same words.
“In cooking, corn had two forms: the first was raw or cooked green corn; the second was dried corn processed in one of two ways—either ground or soaked in an alkali solution. Ground corn is essentially cornmeal; the coarsest cracked corn was parched and eaten plain, especially on long hunting trips. My father carried this to school wrapped in a piece of paper as a recess-time snack in the 1930s. With some elaboration cornmeal became breads, fritters, and dumplings. Hominy comes from soaking and dehulling the dried corn. The Cherokees cooked hominy whole with pumpkin, beans, and walnuts. A hominy drink, Gv-No-He-Nv, was their symbol of hospitality. Dried and ground, hominy becomes grits.” [pp. 24-25]
“In the southern United States, grits refers to the ground product of hominy… To produce hominy, dried corn is first soaked in an alkali solution to facilitate removal of the hulls. The East Coast Indians leached wood ashes to obtain lye. The natives farther west and through Central America relied on lime from limestone. After soaking, hominy can be cooked as a whole grain. The Mexican soup ‘pozole’ is an authentic remnant of native hominy cooking. More often, in the southern United States, hominy is dried again and then ground for grits.’’ [p. 30]
I’m taking Bill Neal as the final word.
When I’m not eating for a dollar a day, I make grits with a little bit of butter and some sharp cheddar cheese and a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce. (Not sure if that’s a traditional recipe, but I learned it from My Friend BG, known to her legions of admirers as MFBG, and she grew up in Wilson and her daddy was a tobacco farmer and that’s as Southern as you can get. So it’s authentic enough for me.)
MFBG heads to Greensboro to get her grits, from the Old Mill of Guilford. She says those are the best around. I believe her.